This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).

 

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C7-01-1077

 

In Re the Marriage of:

 

Todd P. Young, petitioner,

Respondent,

 

vs.

 

Shih Sing Liu,

Appellant.

 

 

Filed December 11, 2001

Affirmed; motion denied

Mulally, Judge*

 

 

Washington County District Court

File No. F6-00-5705

 

 

D. Patrick McCullough, Lisa Watson Cyr, McCullough, Smith, Wright & Kempe, P.A., 905 Parkway Drive, St. Paul, MN  55106 (for respondent)

 

Maury D. Beaulier, Vincent P. Martin, The Beaulier Law Office, 5001 West 80th Street, Suite 1010, Bloomington, MN  55437 (for appellant)

 

 

            Considered and decided by Amundson, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Mulally, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

MULALLY, Judge

            In this dissolution proceeding, appellant-wife challenges the district court’s denial of her request to reserve the issue of spousal maintenance, arguing that (a) the district court was required to reserve maintenance under Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 3 (2000), in light of her uncertain medical condition and uncertain ability to support herself in the future, and (b) the district court should not have divested itself of jurisdiction over maintenance.  Respondent-husband requests that this court award him attorney fees and a monetary-sanction related to this appeal.  Because we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying appellant’s request to reserve the maintenance issue, we affirm.  We also conclude that respondent is not entitled to attorney fees or a monetary-sanction award.

FACTS

Appellant Shih Sing Liu and respondent Todd Young were married in May 1991.  The parties agree that their marriage was nontraditional.  Of the nearly ten years they were married, they resided together between 9 and 17 months.  Liu, a neurosurgeon, spent time in Malaysia to fulfill her INS requirements, and then worked in Ohio and Arizona before obtaining a position in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Young, an attorney, stayed in Minnesota because this is the state in which he is licensed to practice law.

            In July 2000, Liu underwent emergency eye surgery after a retina detached from one eye.  Shortly thereafter, Liu suffered a retinal tear in her other eye, which also required surgery.  As a result, Liu does not have 20/20 vision and she experiences “floaters” in one eye.  In order for Liu to perform surgeries, a second surgeon must be in the operating room and Liu is required to inform her patients of her condition. Liu has a disability-insurance policy to protect her in case she becomes permanently disabled and is unable to work as a neurosurgeon.  Based on Liu’s income at the time she purchased her $300,000 disability insurance policy, Liu will receive $8,775 per month tax free if she becomes permanently disabled.  In addition, while receiving full disability benefits, she will not have to pay the insurance premium.

            In October 2000, Young petitioned the district court for dissolution of the marriage.  In the 2000 tax year, Young’s gross income was approximately $111,000.  For the same tax year, Liu’s gross yearly income was approximately $200,000 plus bonuses, which were based on a percentage of her billings.  She also received partial disability benefits of $4,387.50 tax free each month due to her eye condition.  The parties were able to stipulate to property distribution, but Liu requested that the district court reserve the issue of spousal maintenance because her eye condition may render her unable to financially support herself in the future.   After trial on the maintenance issue, the district court, relying heavily on Liu’s disability-insurance coverage and current earning capacity, determined that reserving the maintenance issue was unnecessary and inappropriate.  The court also divested itself of jurisdiction over the issue.  Liu now challenges the district court’s decision.  On appeal, Young requests need-based attorney fees, conduct-based attorney fees and a monetary-sanction award based on his assertion that Liu’s appeal is unfounded and unwarranted.

D E C I S I O N

1.         Spousal Maintenance

            Liu argues that the district court abused its discretion by refusing to reserve the spousal-maintenance issue and by divesting itself of jurisdiction over the issue.  Liu contends that the issue should have been reserved because her medical condition creates uncertainty about her ability to financially support herself in the future.

            Because Liu did not move the district court for amended findings or a new trial, the scope of review is limited to whether the evidence sustains the court’s factual findings and whether the court’s findings support its conclusions of law.  Keith v. Keith, 429 N.W.2d 276, 278 (Minn. App. 1988).  Absent an abuse of the district court’s “wide discretion” in awarding maintenance, the district court’s “determination is final.”  Erlandson v. Erlandson, 318 N.W.2d 36, 38 (Minn. 1982).  An abuse of discretion occurs if the district court makes a clearly erroneous determination that is “against logic and the facts on record.”  Rutten v. Rutten, 347 N.W.2d 47, 50 (Minn. 1984) (citation omitted).

            The district court may reserve jurisdiction of spousal maintenance and determine the issue at a later date.  Minn. Stat. § 518.55, subd. 1 (2000).  Reserving jurisdiction is appropriate where the court may need to assess future changes to the parties’ situations.  See, e.g., Tomscak v. Tomscak, 352 N.W.2d 464, 466 (Minn. App. 1984) (concluding maintenance issue must be reserved to protect party who may have cancer recurrence that would result in drastic change in party’s financial circumstances).

The district court determined that reservation of the maintenance issue was unnecessary and inappropriate because of the property awarded to Liu and her income, income potential, and disability-insurance coverage.

            Liu relies on caselaw where this court determined that reservation of the spousal maintenance issue was appropriate.  See, e.g., Wopata v. Wopata, 498 N.W.2d 478, 485 (Minn. App. 1993) (affirming district court’s decision to reserve maintenance issue where health of party seeking maintenance was uncertain even though both parties were self-sufficient at time of dissolution); Tomscak, 352 N.W.2d at 466 (reversing district court’s decision not to reserve maintenance where party seeking maintenance may have recurrence of cancer that would drastically change her financial situation and make maintenance necessary); Van de Loo v. Van de Loo, 346 N.W.2d 173, 178 (Minn. App. 1984) (affirming district court’s decision to reserve maintenance issue because it would protect parties’ interests, including party whose future health may deteriorate significantly).  While Young counters Liu’s reliance on these cases by asserting that they focus on the district court’s discretionary powers, this court also focused on protecting the party whose future health was uncertain.  In fact, in Tomscak, this court specifically reversed the district court’s decision not to award maintenance and ordered the court to reserve the issue because the party seeking maintenance had uncertain health issues that could render maintenance necessary in the future.  Tomscak, 352 N.W.2d at 466.  This court pointed out that if the district court did not reserve the issue, it would lose jurisdiction to address maintenance in the future, therefore it needed to reserve the issue in order to protect the party seeking maintenance.  Id.

            But, in the cases relied on by Liu, the parties seeking to reserve maintenance did not have a safety net in place if their health deteriorated.  In contrast, Liu has a sound disability insurance policy to protect her if her eye problem deteriorates to the point that she is considered permanently disabled.  Under the policy, Liu will be paid $8,775 per month, tax free, until she is 65, which amounts to $105,300 per year.  In addition, while the claim is active, meaning while Liu is receiving full disability benefit payments, she does not have to pay the $8,800.31 annual premium.  Liu’s policy is effective as long as she is able to pay her annual premium.  Accordingly, she has a sound policy in place that will protect her if her medical condition deteriorates in the future.  Considering the wide discretion the district court is afforded in determining maintenance issues, we conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion by denying Liu’s request to reserve the issue.

            Because we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by declining to reserve the maintenance issue, we also conclude that the court properly divested itself of jurisdiction over the issue.  The two issues go hand-in-hand.  Where the district court does not award maintenance and does not retain jurisdiction over the matter by the terms of the dissolution decree, the court is “without jurisdiction to award [maintenance] thereafter.”  Eckert v. Eckert, 299 Minn. 120, 124, 216 N.W.2d 837, 839 (1974) (citation omitted); see also Tomscak, 352 N.W.2d at 466 (stating where district court neither awards maintenance nor retains jurisdiction to award maintenance in future, court loses jurisdiction to do so following dissolution).  Thus, when the court declined to reserve the maintenance issue, it automatically divested itself of jurisdiction over the matter.

2.         Attorney Fees

            Young moves this court to award attorney fees and costs to him pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1 (2000) (discussing need- and conduct-based attorney fees), and Minn. Stat. § 549.211, subd. 2 (2000) (discussing sanctions court may impose in civil actions, including award of bad-faith attorney fees and costs).  Young asserts that the parties have disparate financial situations, which entitles him to need-based attorney fees.  He also asserts that this appeal is unfounded and unwarranted, which entitles him to conduct-based attorney fees and enforcement of monetary sanctions against Liu.

The governing statute states that the “court shall award attorney fees, costs, and disbursements in an amount necessary to enable a party to carry on or contest the proceeding” if it finds (a) the fees are necessary for a good-faith assertion of rights; (b) the payor has the ability to pay the award; and (c) the recipient cannot pay his or her own fees.  Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1 (2000).  The statute also directs that the court has discretion to award “additional fees, costs, and disbursements against a party who unreasonably contributes” to the proceeding’s length or expense.  Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1; Geske v. Marcolina, 624 N.W.2d 813, 818 (Minn. App. 2001).

Because the statute does not identify a particular court, but rather states “the court,” it seems that the statutory mandate applies to district courts as well as appellate courts.  In addition, because the statutory language states that “additional fees” may be awarded based on a party’s conduct, it seems that need-based fee awards may, in fact, be a prerequisite to a conduct-based fee award under Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1.

  A.       Need-Based Attorney Fees

            Young’s attorney fees are necessary in order for him to make a good-faith assertion of his rights, and Liu has the ability to pay Young’s fees, given her gross yearly income of approximately $200,000 plus bonuses and her partial disability benefits.  But, contrary to Young’s assertion, he has the ability to pay his own fees.  Young’s gross yearly income is approximately $111,000.  Young did not submit evidence to the district court or this court concerning his reasonable monthly expenses.  The district court determined that “[b]oth parties maintain that they are currently self-supporting.”  In addition, the record demonstrates that the parties had very little debt in comparison to their earning capacity. Because there is no evidence to suggest that Young does not have the ability to pay his own attorney fees, we conclude that he is not entitled to need-based attorney fees.  See Gales v. Gales, 553 N.W.2d 416, 423 (Minn. 1996) (denying party’s request for appellate attorney fees where party did not provide court with current information on income and expenses).

B.         Conduct-Based Attorney Fees and Sanctions

            In addition to need-based attorney fees, a court may award reasonable attorney fees under Minn. Stat. § 549.211 (2000) “when a party acts in bad faith by asserting frivolous or unfounded claims solely to harass or delay proceedings.”  Toughill v. Toughill, 609 N.W.2d 634, 642 (Minn. App. 2000) (citation omitted). 

            The record fails to demonstrate that Liu unreasonably contributed to this appeal’s length or expense.  Even though the district court determined that reserving the spousal- maintenance issue was unnecessary and inappropriate, Liu made a good-faith argument based on relevant caselaw that the district court abused its discretion in making its determination.  Because her assertion was made in good faith, we conclude that an award of conduct-based attorney fees or sanctions is inappropriate.

            Affirmed; motion denied.



* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.